College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Students rock Howe Hall at Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship

On Saturday, January 16, 72 teams of 9- to 14-year-olds from all over Iowa competed in the FIRST LEGO League Championship in Howe Hall on the Iowa State campus. This year’s theme was “Smart Move” and involved two equally weighted components—a robot that maneuvered a course as well as a research project presented to a panel of judges. Teamwork and professionalism also were important aspects of the competition.

Each team’s robot had to successfully negotiate a LEGO obstacle course set up with various tasks. The teams received points based on how many tasks were completed in the allotted time. The research portion—this year dealing with transportation—consisted of each team identifying and solving a problem and then presenting their solution.

For coverage of the championship, see The Tribune and the Iowa State Daily.

A preliminary story follows.

Libby Swartley may be a veteran of three FIRST LEGO League seasons, but she says the annual contest featuring LEGO robots taking on tabletop missions is still a lot of work.

Swartley and her teammates, after all, have had to program their little LEGO machine to complete simulated missions that take them into some of the planet’s biggest science and engineering challenges.

The first year it was energy. Then it was climate science. And this year it’s “Smart Move,” the transportation of people, animals, information and things.

And while Swartley and her team still have a few things to figure out before the Jan. 16 Iowa FIRST LEGO League Championship at Iowa State University’s College of Engineering, the 12-year-old sixth grader from Cedar Falls is ready to compete.

“It’s really fun,” she said. “It’s not just the missions at the table. We have projects and teamwork and technical interviews.”

Besides, she said, “It’s fun to be there with lots of people and see how all the other teams do their missions.”

She’s right about the people. Organizers of the state championship for 9- to 14-year-olds are expecting a crowd that includes 72 teams with as many as 10 members each. Opening ceremonies are at 9 a.m. in the Howe Hall atrium with closing ceremonies at 4:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

And while team T-shirts, loud cheers, funny hats and LEGO bricks are part of the show, there are some lessons in engineering, science and technology, too.

“It’s amazing to see what the kids learn through FIRST LEGO League,” said Brandon Newendorp, an Iowa State graduate student in human computer interaction and a championship co-chair.

Chris Tourek, an Iowa State graduate student in mechanical engineering and the championship’s other co-chair, said the learning includes skills in computer programming, building a useful machine and presenting research work.

The competition is all about showing young students that there’s more to science than equations and lab worksheets, said Camille Sloan Schroeder, the manager of Iowa State Engineering Kids, a program that promotes engineering to elementary and secondary students.

“We really want kids to see the other side of math, science, engineering and technology,” she said. “In school, they learn with teachers working at the chalkboard. They often don’t see a relationship between what they’re learning and the physical world. We take what students learn in schools and apply it to something super fun and exciting.”

There are now 215 FIRST LEGO League teams having fun with science and engineering across the state. That’s 73 more than last year. Worldwide, there are more than 12,000 teams.

And Kenton Swartley, Libby’s father and FIRST LEGO League coach, wishes there were even more.

“This competition is just a great opportunity for the kids,” said the physics teacher at Cedar Falls High School. “I look at the 10 students on our team and compare them to all the students at our elementary school. Boy, it would be nice if all the kids had an opportunity to do something like this.”

The annual state competition is sponsored by Iowa State’s College of Engineering, Rockwell Collins, the Mark and Carolyn Guidry Foundation, the Central Iowa Section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Loren Zachary and the K. Engel Engineering Outreach Endowment.

FIRST LEGO League is the creation of FIRST, a nonprofit organization based in New Hampshire that’s dedicated to inspiring young people to explore science and technology, and the LEGO Group, the Denmark-based toy manufacturer.